On The Wildness of Children
The revolution will not take place in a classroom
“…A bear’s wild nature is evolved, over hundreds of thousands of years, to carry the impulse to roam at will over a territory of hundreds of square miles. When you put a bear in a cage, it paces relentlessly back and forth, back and forth, back and forth, until its paws bleed. The bleeding paws tell the zookeeper, if she is listening, a story; a story of wide open spaces, of rushing rivers teeming with fish, of wriggling grubs in the moist soil under rocks, of the fragrance of wild blueberries carried for miles on the wind.
“Some animals can live in cages. Squirrels and rats, pigeons and gulls, adapt and thrive under almost any conditions, no matter how far removed from their original nature. Others cannot adapt; they become dysfunctional, traumatized; they “fail to thrive.” You can find their stories in the zookeepers’ manuals. They pace till their paws bleed, they regurgitate their food, they pull out their own fur or pluck out their own feathers. They become abnormally aggressive, abnormally fearful. Or they just sicken and die.
“Some of our children, it turns out, are more like pigeons and squirrels, and some are more like bears. Some of them adapt to the institutional walls we put around them, and some of them pace till their paws bleed. The bleeding of these children, if we listen, can tell us many stories about ourselves…”
“…Any wildlife biologist knows that an animal in a zoo will not develop normally if the environment is incompatible with the evolved social needs of its species. But we no longer know this about ourselves. We have radically altered our own evolved species behavior by segregating children artificially in same-age peer groups instead of mixed-age communities, by compelling them to be indoors and sedentary for most of the day, by asking them to learn from text-based artificial materials instead of contextualized real-world activities, by dictating arbitrary timetables for learning rather than following the unfolding of a child’s developmental readiness. Common sense should tell us that all of this will have complex and unpredictable results. In fact, it does. While some children seem able to function in this completely artificial environment, really significant numbers of them cannot. Around the world, every day, millions and millions and millions of normal bright healthy children are labelled as failures in ways that damage them for life. And increasingly, those who cannot adapt to the artificial environment of school are diagnosed as brain-disordered and drugged.
“It is in this context that we set out to research how human beings learn. But collecting data on human learning based on children’s behavior in school is like collecting data on killer whales based on their behavior at Sea World.”
On Power, Knowledge, and the Re-occupation of Common Sense
“… In “developed” societies, we are so accustomed to centralized control over learning that it has become functionally invisible to us, and most people accept it as natural, inevitable, and consistent with the principles of freedom and democracy. We assume that this central authority, because it is associated with something that seems like an unequivocal good – “education” – must itself be fundamentally good, a sort of benevolent dictatorship of the intellect. We allow remote “experts” to dictate what we must learn, when we must learn it, and how we must learn it. We grant them the right to test us, to measure the contents of our brains and the value of our skills, and then to brand us in childhood with a set of numeric rankings that have enormous power over our future opportunities to participate in the economic and political life of our society. We endorse strict legal codes which render this process compulsory, and in a truly Orwellian twist, many of us now view it as a fundamental human right to be legally compelled to learn what a higher authority tells us to learn.”
“…Greg Mortenson, like everybody else, loves to tell the touching story of the girl from the village who studies hard, passes her school exams, and goes on to become the proverbial doctor-who-will-come-back-to-the-village-and-reduce-infant-mortality. He raises a lot of money with that story, and a lot of donors go to sleep at night feeling better about the world because they are helping it to happen. But what Greg doesn’t tell us, and what the donors don’t want to think about, is what happens to all the other children. The dirty underside of our system is that schools as we know them today are structurally designed to fail a reliable percentage of kids. Interestingly, they reliably fail a much higher percentage of kids in in low-income areas than they do in affluent areas, and this is true from Detroit to Gilgit-Baltistan. When we put children from traditional rural areas into school, what we’re doing is transitioning them from a non-cash agricultural economy where nobody gets rich but nobody starves into a hierarchical system of success and failure in which some lives may get “better,” but others will get much, much worse. Guess which club has more members? Welcome, boys and girls, to the global economy.“
“… If modernized societies are beginning to discuss moving from 20th century “big-box” schooling to a more 21st century networked model of learning, one possibility is that we may see a convergence of learning styles between ancient and modern cultures. As Sugata Mitra has discovered, unlettered street children can teach themselves how to use computers when given free access to the technology. So does it make sense to remove rural indigenous children from their traditional cultures and put them into outdated factory-style schools? Or should traditional people consider skipping that step, and deciding for themselves how they may want to use, ignore, adapt, blend, or hybridize new technologies and information in an open-network self-regulating manner?“